Some months ago I became a British citizen. This wasn’t such a stretch for a native of the States, but it put me in mind of other transplanted people and I have been rereading some old favourites to celebrate. Perversely, the most resonant thing I’ve read isn’t British at all: a tale written in French by a Belgian who became American and settled on an island near my family’s summer home in the northern state of Maine. It is a quiet piece of literary grisaille called Un homme obscur, ‘An Obscure Man’.
The author, Marguerite Yourcenar, is immortal in the Francophone world and in America, but she is oddly under-appreciated in Britain. She became peculiarly immortelle in 1980 as the first woman to be elected to the Académie française. Her vaguely oriental-sounding nom-de-plume is a rearrangement of the letters of her name at birth – de Crayencour. Born an aristocrat in Brussels in 1903, she became a plain American citizen in 1951 and settled permanently in a remote part of Maine, near the uttermost end of New England. Her home was a white cottage called La Petite Plaisance above Seal Cove, on the island she referred to throughout her life as L’Île des Monts Déserts. To the natives this is Mount Desert Island, variously pronounced like the dry empty place or the last course at dinner.
Also at this time Yourcenar published the work that has become her most famous, Les Mémoires d’Hadrien, an historical novel delving into the mind of the Roman emperor Hadrian (see Slightly Foxed, No. 2). In 1968 came a complementary novel, much darker in tone and thus fittingly entitled L’Oeuvre au noir, and in English The Abyss; set in sixteenth-century Europe, it comprises a long meditation on the abuses of power over intellect and the irrepressible power of the intellect to endure. In a much smaller novella begun in 1934, Yourcenar wrote about a man similarly buffeted by the wind
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